Seemuller v. Fairfax County School Board

878 F. 2d 1578 (4th Circuit 1989)

Facts : P.E. teacher sues the school board saying his First Amendment rights were violated when the board refused to give him a pay increment because the teacher received a "needs improvement" rating in "Professional Responsibility" when he wrote a satirical rebuttal to the school newspaper in response to an anonymous letter published in the newspaper complaining of "a few male chauvinistic P.E. teachers."

Issue : Does a teacher have First Amendment protection when his speech addresses a matter of public concern.

Decision: The US Court of Appeals concluded that the teacher's published response to the complaint that a public school discriminates on the basis of sex is a matter of public concern. Judgment of trial court was vacated and the case was remanded to a lower court.

Reasoning:

(1) Employees freedom of speech is protected from employer discipline if, as a citizen, the employee's speech addresses a matter of public concern.

(2) Compared to speech concerning racial discrimination the Court reasoned that comments of sexual discrimination were of "no less public interest."

(3) Speech considered controversial or inappropriate is irrelevant to the question of public concern.

(4) Use of satire in comments does not negate the protection of the First Amendment.

Significance: School boards or Administrators cannot withhold school benefits from employees for controversial public comments when comments are a matter of public concern.

Note: Plaintiff recovered court costs.

From The Law and American Education

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